Education Opinion

The Gorilla, the Basketball and the Future

By Nancy Flanagan — January 04, 2011 4 min read
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Remember the gorilla video that everyone in education was chattering about, maybe five years ago? I went to three conferences in a row where someone showed this video in a presentation, generally drawing audience reactions somewhere between amazement and confusion.

If you haven’t seen it, here’s a synopsis: Six people, three in white shirts and three in black, are passing two basketballs back and forth. The viewer is instructed to count the passes made by players in white shirts. The six passers are in a relatively small area, in front of a bank of elevator doors; the space between passers (who are awkwardly moving around) is only a couple of feet. After a half-minute of pass-counting, a person in a gorilla suit enters the viewing area, moves into the center of the basketball action, beats its chest, then strolls off.

Supposedly, fewer than half of first-time viewers see the gorilla, so intent are they on counting passes. When told they’ve missed noticing a gorilla, they’re stunned. It’s called selective attention, the human inability to perceive all incoming stimuli at once, forcing us to choose which processing resources and points of focus will prevail.

The interesting thing here is not the results of the experiment. It’s the way that different education presenters used the video clip. I first saw the video at a State Board of Education meeting. The point being made (I think) was that educators and education leaders were missing huge critical issues, because they were wearing policy blinders. A Big Scary Gorilla was looming, and school leaders were focused on minutiae, perhaps the very items on the Board’s agenda.

Now that’s a concept most veteran teachers can appreciate. Even though the video gorilla was obvious and visible to me, there are plenty of changes in educational practice that I didn’t see coming, beginning with mandatory standardized testing of students in grades 3-8. Sweeping changes in educational practice and policy tend to come as a surprise to teachers, simply because they haven’t been paying attention to the discourse or trends, what with recess duty, lesson plans, parent phone calls and trying to stay awake until the news.

I saw the clip used--with limited relevance, IMHO--to illustrate several ideas or issues, including teachers’ purported reluctance to use technology, schools’ inability to think past outdated habits, and in support of “data retreats” for schools (where, presumably, the basketball players represented clueless teachers attending to the wrong stuff, and the gorilla portrayed Important Student Data).

Well, you can only take a metaphor so far. As often as the clip was trotted out, I never heard anyone suggest that perhaps the video had little significance beyond the demonstrated fact that many people aren’t particularly observant. Maybe there was no transferable grand nugget, no key message about dire outcomes if we can’t see what’s coming down the pike.

Gary Stager just posted an amusing piece about Famous Eduspeakers who make big bucks recycling ideas about “the future” that we’ve been hearing for decades: A doctor who practiced in 1900 wouldn’t recognize most equipment or procedures in a modern hospital, but the American classroom hasn’t changed much in a century. Everyone will have multiple jobs, and most of those jobs haven’t been invented. Knowledge quadruples overnight. Kids use technology fluently and effectively; geezers can barely check their e-mail. And so on.

In spite of all the presenters who’ve made tidy fortunes standing in front of teachers repeating things like this, showing moody videos with minor-key soundtracks and coining phrases, the pace and direction of change in education are fairly random, dependent more on fluctuation in the political economy and available technologies than the result of creative thinking. You can’t point to many instances of innovative vision and planning leading to spectacular results. The track record of educational prognosticators is pretty weak, and most “21st century education experts” spend their time critiquing schools and teachers for being behind the curve.

In the late 70s, I took a graduate class called “The Future of Education.” We read a lot of Alvin Toffler and publications from the World Future Society about the coming revolution in education. A few of the forecasts from one of my textbooks (published in 1977):

• In the early 80s, education levels will have climbed to the point where 70% of the population has a high school diploma, and will continue to rise. Half of the workforce will hold prestigious white-collar jobs, and that percentage will also rise.
• The work week will be set at 35 hours by 1985.
• Great emphasis will be put on energy conservation, with the nation becoming energy self-sufficient by 2000. By 1990, the petroleum industry will be nationalized.
• By 1990, all schools will operate on a year-round plan. There will be a nationalized health care system. Vaccines will have conquered venereal disease, and drugs will increase the learning of developmentally delayed children.
• “New Breed” political leaders will combine Eastern ideologies with Western tactics, preferring shared and cooperative decision-making over power.
• By 2000, the average age of retirement will be 47, and weekly hours for leisure nearly doubled. Public schools will routinely provide recreational facilities for communities.
• Drugs will permanently raise the level of human intelligence by 2010.

Depressing, no?

Welcome to 2011, and watch out for the gorilla.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.